Two figures are worth comparing because they show two different ways to respond to Jesus. Zacchaeus in our Gospel story today stands in sharp contrast to the young rich ruler earlier in Luke’s Gospel (Lk 18: 18-25). To refresh your memory, the young rich ruler comes to Jesus with the question on how he might attain eternal life. Jesus responds by turning the man’s attention to what he already knows to be his call: living a morally upright life by fulfilling the Law. Then, Jesus goes on to add one important area of freedom for the young rich ruler. He must give his possessions away to the poor. The rich young man leaves desolate, but the reader is left to wonder what he decides.
On the other hand, Zacchaeus appears as the type of person who is possessed by everything he owns. As a tax collector, he contracted with the Roman occupying force to collect tolls on the people. He was probably seen as a traitor to his people for the sake of a more comfortable life for himself. When Jesus comes to Zacchaeus, he seems elated to be lifted of the burden of his possessions. He promises to give half of what he owns to the poor, and offers to repay what has unjustly taken.
Between these two figures, the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus, Luke points to an important theme of discipleship. How open we are to Jesus’s call depends on how much we cling to our possessions. For a person who has found her identity in what she owns will be paralyzed at the prospect of letting go of things. The quantity of possessions we have and are offered daily requires a process of discernment, forgiveness when we have strayed, and recommitment to the path of the poor Jesus.
When is the last time I took a spiritual inventory of my possessions? What do I need? What do I find hard to let go?